In a few weeks, experienced backyard gardeners will be gearing up for the spring vegetable growing season in anticipation of tasty and bountiful crops. What if you want a vegetable garden, but don't have a large backyard lot to till up for the project? A good way to compensate for the lack of space is by gardening in raised beds. This also helps to overcome a major challenge to most gardeners in our area: less-than-perfect soil, whether it's gumbo clay that is sticky with poor drainage or extremely sandy soil that dries out quickly.
And, the rewards can be well worth the effort as a well-tended garden can supply you and your family with a variety of nutritious, healthful vegetables to be enjoyed fresh or preserved for later use. When space is limited, a plentiful harvest of such crops as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and okra can be grown on a few properly cared for plants.
Most vegetables do best when planted in a site that receives full exposure to the sun. However, most vegetables can also tolerate some shade but a minimum of eight hours of direct exposure to sun is recommended. Raised beds should also be conveniently located close to a water supply.
MAKE A PLAN
Plan your garden so that the available space can be used wisely. For small areas, select those crops that you like best and that will produce an adequate supply on a few plants. Also, plan to use the space continuously by planting another in-season crop soon after the last harvest is completed. Plant tall-growing plants together on the north or west side of the garden so they will not shade lower-growing plants.
Now comes the hard work.
CREATE A BED AND PREPARE THE SOIL
The success of your raised-bed garden depends on good preparation. Creating a raised bed for vegetables can be as simple as working soil into flat-topped mounds a little higher than the paths through the garden.
Here in Galveston County, most gardeners who utilize flat-topped mounds as the growing bed just work the soil as deeply as they can. (In some areas of the country, gardeners will dig to a 24-inch depth - you'll soon give up on that notion after you have worked with our gumbo clay soil!) Then you should add fertilizer. Adding compost or other organic matter is absolutely essential to improving our gumbo clay or to hold together the sandy soil along the coastal area.
I highly recommend use of raised beds consisting of landscape timbers or dimension lumber such as 2x4's or 2x6's. Use treated lumber or rot-resistant lumber such as cypress or other lumber. Boxed beds are easier to maintain and weed, produce larger yields, and can be an attractive component to the home landscape. When constructing boxed beds, I recommend a minimum height of 8 inches; in fact, the higher you build them, the better - the vegetable beds at the Extension Office are 16 inches in height.
I also recommend use of a high quality garden soil mix to fill the boxes. Remember to add generous amounts of compost, well-rotted manure or other sources of organic matter periodically to maintain good soil structure as well.
A convenient width for most raised beds is 3-4 feet wide (depending on what you plan to grow) and as long as space allows. Create a minimum of 15-inch to 20-inch paths between the beds.
Mulch the paths to keep down weeds and allow a dry surface for walking. Pea-sized gravel, boards, grass clippings or straw make a good path.
BEDS ALLOW MORE SPACE FOR PLANTS
Because the soil is improved and there is no need to walk between plants, you can space vegetables more closely. That means more yield per square foot. Beds three or four feet wide have enough space for two rows of large plants such as corn, bush beans or peppers. Space tomatoes 2.5 to 3 feet apart in staggered rows to permit good light penetration and air circulation.
ADDITIONAL BENEFITS OF RAISED BEDS
Raised beds warm up earlier in the spring and dry out faster after a soaking rain. This allows the soil to be worked and planted earlier, extending the season a week or more. The wide edges of landscape timbers provide handy seats, too, while weeding or harvesting.
Permanent paths can reduce the cost of labor and materials, since they don't need water, fertilizer or soil amendments. Well-defined beds, such as those boxed with timbers, are less likely to be walked on, so the soil stays loose and porous much longer and is easier to work each year.
Homegrown flavor and the fun of watching things grow can be even easier and more productive in raised beds.
This web site is maintained by Master Gardener Laura Bellmore, under the direction of William M. Johnson, Ph.D., County Extension Agent-Horticulture & Master Gardener Program Coordinator.
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